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California eyes Right to Rest Act to stem criminalization of homeless

State becomes the fourth to consider legislation enshrining right to basic acts of survival in public places

A California state lawmaker has introduced the Right to Rest Act, aimed at ending criminalization of the homeless — bringing to four the number of states considering similar proposals — rights advocates said Monday.

"Whether it is our Right to Rest Act or other versions that achieve the same goal of decriminalizing poor and homeless community members existence in public spaces, doesn't matter," Paul Boden, the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. "What matters is we all work together and support each other in ending racist and classist policing programs once and for all."

State Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge had introduced the Right to Rest Act, SB 608, in the state Senate on Friday. Similar bills, widely referred to as a Homeless Bill of Rights, have been introduced by state legislators in Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii.

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California’s Right to Rest Act would give homeless people the right to use public space without discrimination. It also describes the right to rest in public, to protect oneself from the elements in public, to eat in public and to occupy a legally parked car as "basic human and civil rights," according to the text of the Senate bill.

"The bill would authorize a person whose rights have been violated pursuant to these provisions to enforce those rights in a civil action," the text read.

Laws targeting the homeless for carrying out life-sustaining activities such as standing, sitting, resting or sleeping in public places — as well as begging and food sharing — have risen sharply in California in recent years, a report by the University of California at Berkeley Law School said.

Statewide arrests for offenses such as sitting or standing in public areas increased by 77 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to the Berkeley report released last month.

The report also said that the number of ordinances targeting such activities has risen along with the homeless population — which increased sharply after federal funding for affordable housing was cut in the early 1980s and again in 2008 with the recession.

In Hawaii — where lawmakers are considering legislation similar to Right to Rest — the number of laws targeting the homeless has also risen. In Honolulu, it was recently made a misdemeanor to rest on sidewalks in the tourist district. The offense is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

In response, homeless rights advocates created Hawaii's Homeless Bill of Rights, which last week passed through state Senate hearings, advocates said. It heads next to the House for more hearings.

The bill would assert the right to use public spaces, to vote, to not have police or other authorities search their belongings without reasonable suspicion, to sleep in a legally parked car and to have access to restrooms and other hygiene facilities. 

"Actions by state, county or private organizations shall not impede an individual's ability to maintain access to services essential to survival," the legislation reads. 

Similar bills in Colorado and Oregon have been introduced by lawmakers and will head to hearings in coming weeks. A coalition of more than 130 advocacy groups worked on the legislation proposed in Oregon, Colorado and California, based on nearly 1,500 interviews with people living on the streets. 

Respondents said they were most commonly cited or arrested for basic acts of survival including sleeping, sitting and standing in public areas. Homeless rights advocates say such laws unfairly target those deemed undesirable, in an attempt to push them out of public spaces.

The Right to Rest movement aims to change how homelessness is addressed. Instead of treating it as a criminal issue, homeless rights advocates say it should be considered a social justice issue, like poverty.

"From Hawaii to New York and from Maine to Texas, it’s time for this to stop," Boden said.

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